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It takes time to acquire an interest in history

26 October 2012

AT THE English Heritage Angel awards ceremony on Monday, its director, Dr Simon Thurley, read out a letter from a 13-year-old boy. It expressed outrage at the state of several Welsh monuments in public hands, combined with a teenager's confidence that "something would be done". Almost 50 years later, the author, Lord Lloyd-Webber, knows that something, indeed, can be done, but not by the state or some nameless other. State funding, is of course, vital; but the preservation of this country's heritage comes down again and again to inspired individuals, who determine, for a variety of reasons, that this church or that factory will not be allowed to crumble. It was for this reason that Lord Lloyd-Webber has sponsored the Angel awards.

The British love of ancient buildings runs counter to their apparent addiction to ephemera displayed in the high street and online. People wish to associate themselves with the permanence of things, especially when those things show signs of not being permanent after all. The Angel awards focused on extreme examples of restoration, bringing buildings back from the edge of ruin, such as the Brixton Windmill, the First World War aerodrome at Stow Maries, the 14th-century Blenkinsopp Castle, or St Mary's, Fishley (restored, the citation said, "amidst costly episodes of vandalism and even opposition from the Parochial Church Council"). In every instance, the work was hard, often back-breaking, involving the careful preservation of all that could be saved, the painstaking blending in of modern materials, the marshalling of labourers and craftsmen, and continual fund-raising.

The motive was often the unmatchable beauty of the en­dangered building: the delicate ironwork of Tynemouth Station, the Art Deco elegance of the Regal Cinema in Evesham. The congregation of the Guru Teg Bahadur Gurdwara had no cultural connection with the former church school that they used as their temple. But when they investigated above their false ceiling, and found a neglected Victorian hammer-beam roof in urgent need of restoration, they moved fast and worked hard. Sometimes, however, it was simply an affection for something that was unloved, and a dogged refusal that this would not be the generation when centuries, or even mere decades, of history would come to an end. Bequeathing these buildings, canals, or even a bit of coastline, to the next generation was mentioned more than one by those shortlisted for the awards. Those responsible for the upkeep of churches know well how difficult it is to interest young people in their preservation - even when (or because?) many children are dragged round English Heritage and National Trust sites by their parents. But these associations with history take time to mature. We should not be alarmed if the impulse to take a hand is most prominent among the more elderly, certain 13-year-olds excepted.

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